Sunday, December 14, 2014

REVIEW: “A CHRISTMAS CAROL” GLOWS ONCE AGAIN @ CHATHAM COMMUNITY PLAYERS

By Ruth Ross

"The more things change, the more they stay the same" accurately describes the musical version of Charles Dickens' venerable ghost story, A Christmas Carol, now in its 17th production (since 1988) on the stage of the Chatham Community Playhouse. I have been reviewing this exclusive-to-the-Playhouse biannual production since 1997, and each iteration, albeit slightly different from the last, remains a highlight of my holiday season.

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The play’s original music and book, adapted from the writings and letters of Charles Dickens by Philip William McKinley, retells the classic story of the miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge, along with details from Dickens’s life, childhood and family interwoven with the events depicted in the narrative. Taking the old geezer on his "journey" to redemption are three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present (Above, L-R: Will Carey, Alan Semok and Chip Prestera) and Christmas Future. All serve to overcome Scrooge's disregard for his fellow men and soften the hard, constricted heart of a man reputed to be the "public face for a good man of business"—a message (unfortunately) as relevant today as when Dickens penned it at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1834.

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So what has stayed the same? For starters, there is Alan Semok (left), returning for his twentieth appearance as Ebenezer Scrooge. With his scowling face and crabbed posture Semok is Scrooge (“He even sleeps with a sneer,” someone says), a man who, by the end of the evening, kicks up his heels like a child and whose smile lights up the little black box theater! The songs by Philip William McKinley and Suzanne Buhrer sound as fresh and melodic as when I first heard them. I dare anyone not to wipe away a tear as little Tiny Tim (an adorable Pierson Salvador, top photo) tells his family about his dream and the importance of love in the world!

The choreography by Megan Ferentinos remains as crisp as ever, especially in the high-spirited "Dance with Your Dumpling" number at Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig's annual Christmas party (right). And the very funny “Pawnbroker’s Song,” with its refrain, “Cheerio, ta-ta,” lets us know that, even as he lay dying, Scrooge’s laundress, charwoman and undertaker feel no remorse for stealing from their miserable employer, whose passing they do not mourn. Indeed, this is an ensemble show, with lots of actors playing multiple, often minor, roles; they are a tight group with nary a weak performance among them.

The wigs assembled by Brian James Grace and the costumes designed by Fran Harrison (with Maryann Post’s coordination), complete with bonnets and muffs, cravats and top hats, petticoats and hooped skirts, instantly transport us back to the nineteenth century. And the three Ghosts (two on stilts) move the story along with some special effects that are unexpected and a bit scary—although not too scary to frighten the younger audience members! The action moves smoothly around the small playing space, with even the shallow stage doing quadruple duty as a London street, Scrooge’s bedroom, a warehouse and a drawing room.

So what has changed? Well, some tweaking in 2005 and 2008 have given the show a new look and feel. Back for his second stint as director, Jeffrey Fiorello keeps the action humming, but with a softer feel. Scrooge's journey doesn't seem as frenetic as I remember it. He's aided in this by an outstanding performance by a charming Chip Prestera as the author and narrator, Charles Dickens. Prestera (left, with Alan Semok) may be diminutive in stature, but his stage presence is big enough to fill the theater. He's avuncular rather than commanding, dignified but with a softened demeanor reminiscent of the performer Danny Kaye. In the three years I have been watching Prestera perform at the playhouse, his growth as an actor has impressed me; he surely does not disappoint this time out.

Many of the actors are new to the production, too. William K. Carey is wonderful as Mr. Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present; Scott Baird (Right, second from left) is a fine Bob Cratchit, as is Samantha Kaplan (third from right)as his wife, Steven Nitka as a scary Marley, Brielle Raddi as Scrooge's lovely ex-fiancée Belle, tiny Sarah Rappaport  as Scrooge's adorable sister Fan, Adunni Rae Charles as an ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past and Andrea Thibodeau as a delicious Mrs. Fezziwig. Oh, and I mustn't forget to mention the addition of a new song, "Marley's Lament," never before heard since the show was first workshopped in the 1980s.

As for the production crew, Richard Hennessy is to be commended for his splendid lighting design, as is Joe DeVico for sound; those echo-y voices are scary! Jack Bender’s musical direction (and conducting of a small combo) provides wonderful accompaniment for the talented singer/actors.

For those of us who associate Christmas with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Martha Stewart and shopping, it’s a bit of a surprise to be reminded that A Christmas Carol is actually a ghost story, and a scary one at that. Yet despite its scarier aspects—most notably the appearance of ghostly spirits and the projected death of Tiny Tim—A Christmas Carol is great family entertainment. And its twin themes of redemption and hope are most appropriate to the holiday season—whatever your religious persuasion might be.

One certainly does not need to shell out big bucks to take the family to Madison Square Garden for their annual “Christmas Carol” extravaganza, where the seats may be located “miles” from the stage and the merchandise hawkers tempt the little ones and empty your wallet. An added plus of the Chatham Community Players’ production is the closeness of the audience to the action; it’s a great opportunity to introduce the kids to the magic of theater at a reasonable price. The benefits are immeasurable.

A Christmas Carol will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through December 21. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.

Tickets can be purchased at our Box Office or Online. To access the theater’s online ticketing service, simply go to ccp.ticketleap.com. The service is available 24 hours a day, and tickets can be purchased online up until three hours prior to curtain on the day of a performance. Chatham Playhouse’s box office accepts phone reservations at 973.635.7363.